May I Suggest ....

Shannon Burns / Indian Country Today
6/25/08

;Navajo Women: Saanii,' by Betty Reid

The strong, Navajo woman is the centerpiece for a beautiful work of art in the form of a book called ''Navajo Women: Saanii.'' The story, coupled with dozens of Navajo photos, opens the door to the Navajo Nation in a simple, yet touching way for any reader.

The 80-page book was written by Betty Reid, a Navajo woman who resides in Phoenix, Ariz.

For the project of creating the book, Reid was joined by Japanese photographer Kenji Kawano. Kawano is married to a Navajo woman and in the book's forward, he tells about his personal experiences with the Navajo people and how he came to admire them and, in turn, photograph them.

Together, Kawano and Reid have developed a poignant book that is filled with both beauty - in words and photography - and also education. The book is just a small glimpse into the world of the Navajo people, but it is a nonfiction work with true stories about living Navajo people and photographs of the women and their surroundings.

Reid describes the book as being one with ''stories and photographic renderings of the lives of contemporary Navajo women, Saanii. Today's women lead varied lives, from the nation's rural communities to America's cities. Their life stories are arranged in the Navajo lifecycle, using the four cardinal directions. These are portraits of Navajo women.''

Reid has divided the book into sections named by the four directions that lead the Navajo way of life: ''East: Childhood,'' ''South: Young Adult,'' ''Doorway: Between Traditional and Modern Life,'' ''West: Adulthood'' and ''North: Elders.''

She complements each chapter with depictions of Navajo people. She describes their way of life, their personal obstacles, their role in society, and the way in which the Navajo culture is changing for each generation.

In describing Giavanti, a 10-month-old girl, Reid says, ''Giavanti is destined to grow up in a radically different world than did the generations of Navajo women before her. ... The odds are against Giavanti's learning to speak her native tongue, because she will grow up hearing English only.''

Language loss is affecting the Navajo people just like it is affecting all tribes. Reid doesn't focus on that issue alone; but as she explores the lives of various Navajo women, a slew of issues are uncovered candidly and intimately.

Reid introduces readers to Vanessa, a 32-year-old woman whose daily struggles include worrying about her mother and finding happiness with her decision to stay on the reservation while her siblings moved to cities to become ''urban Navajos.''

''I think it's easier to live on the rez,'' Vanessa says. ''I see my siblings experience financial difficulty. Everything seems to be about money if you live in the city. ... I feel lucky living in Tuba City when I hear them discuss their bills.''

Other issues brought to a gentle light in ''Navajo Women: Saanii'' are poverty, the isolation of many parts of the Navajo nation, religion, women's struggle to step outside their traditional role, and the effects of Americanization and commercialism on the Navajo way of life.

Nevertheless, the problems faced in Navajo society do little to take away from the beauty and peace found throughout Navajo country. Reid effortlessly describes the women as great mothers, grandmothers, daughters, farmers, workers, caregivers and teachers.

When a Navajo woman became principal at a Navajo elementary school where the Mormon faith (a patrilineal faith) had become dominant, many people in the isolated community were uncomfortable with a female in charge.

''The elementary school staff expected the Navajo educator to throw up her arms in defeat and walk away from criticism, as was traditional when change was suggested in the school community,'' Reid writes. ''The workers did not realize that this Navajo educator knew more about them than they did about her, and she refused to wilt under pressure.''

Reid's depictions of the Navajo women's way of life are complemented eloquently by Kawano's photographs. One could spend a day just flipping through the colorful pages of the book and getting to know the Navajo people up close and personal.

Some of his photos are moving glimpses of the Navajo lifestyle, while others are emotional photos of an individual expression.

Kawano's personal experiences getting to know the Navajo people in the 1970s is described in his forward and is expressed even further through his photographs.

''I learned more and more about the Navajo customs and traditions, which helped me to understand Navajo people and their life,'' he writes. ''I found out that Navajo women were unlike women of Japan. They were strong and made decisions in the household. Navajo women are persevering and have big hearts. Also, they are patient in the environment of everyday life.''

''Navajo Women: Saanii'' is Reid's third book. She has also written ''Navajo: Portrait of a Nation'' and ''Keeping Promises: What is Sovereignty and Other Questions About Indian Country.''

Kawano's photography has appeared in two other Navajo books: ''Warriors: Navajo Code Talkers'' and ''In the Fifth World: Portrait of the Navajo Nation.''

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